Collectors seek 'wearability' in antique jewelry

Antique jewelry is becoming an increasingly important collectible as women seek to find pieces they safely can wear every day, and which will also increase in value.

"Wearability" has become an important factor. Bank vaults may be the place for the most exquisite pieces, but thousands of women are also looking for good jewelry that they can wear with casual contempory clothes, including jeans and slacks. Such jewelry will often supplement those dressier, more elaborate pieces that add glamour and glitter to evening affairs, but which should be worn with more discretion.

While art nouveau and art deco jewelry is now bringing phenomenal prices at major New York auction galleries such as Sotheby's, Christie's, and Doyle's, it is 19th-century jewelry made in England and Europe that is currently one of the most attractive collecting fields. Fine examples are shown in many shops.

Raizel Halpin, a partner in Ares Antiques, dealers in rare jewelry on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, says, "Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian jewelry has not gone up in price nearly as much as the trendier art nouveau and art deco pieces, and is, in my view, still an underpriced area. There are still many such pieces , attractive and well-made, that sell in the $500 to $2,000 range. Many other fine, wearable pieces still bring less than $5,000." Peter Shaffer of the shop A La Vielle Russie on Fifth Avenue confirms that "antique jewelry of many periods is now undervalued, yet it is alive and vibrant, requires no wall nor gallery for display, but can be worn as portable sculpture."

Ken Harwood of James Robinson's on 57th Street also declares that first-quality English jewelry of the 19th century is a very desirable collectible today. "England was then the commercial center of the universe, and the jeweler's art was concentrated there. London attracted jewelers from all over the world who came to set up shop. They were able to combine techniques from the early stages of the industrial revolution with their own remarkable hand skills. It was a time of great affluence, receptive markets, and stimulating ideas. Jewelrymaking therefore reached a pinnacle of workmanship, the results of which we are still enjoying."

It is the superb craftsmanship that most attracts buyers of antique jewelry at Sotheby's auction sales, says Jacqueline Fay, who heads the jewelry department. Although highest prices are commanded by 19th-century diamond and precious stone jewelry, such as the Victorian gold and enamel bracelet made in 1839 which recently brought $57,500, many extremely attractive pieces of Victorian gold jewelry are still available at auction, she says, for under $500. Gold and enamel pieces by outstanding craftsmen of the late 19th century such as Giuliano, Castellani, and Lalique are all in increasing demand.

Alison Bradshaw, who heads the antique jewelry department at Christie's, comments, "Antique jewelry is sought today far more for its craftsmanship, design, and setting than for its gemstones. There is nothing like this jewelry being made today; it cannot be duplicated because the craftsmen simply aren't around who could do it."

Mrs. Halpin of Ares Antiques, notes that in Europe jewelry has always been an investing field, but until the past few years Americans tended to think that only diamonds were good investments and have actually had little appreciation for good antique jewelry. Very few Americans in this, or earlier centuries, she says, have considered jewelry a sufficiently important art form to take seriously. "So although great jewelry has been made by great craftsmen in all eras over the past 4,000 years, the jeweler's art has been fairly unknown territory to most American art collectors. Now they are beginning to recognize the wide variety of materials, the techniques, and styles found in old jewelry."

This dealer says her customers range from young people in their 20s who buy one piece at a time for $800 or less and take three months to pay for it, to dowagers in their 80s who spend $40,000 for antique diamond necklaces. "All types of women are buying good antique pieces and wearing them often," she says, "not just socialites or women of wealth. Men, too, love to buy jewelry for their wives, or themselves, or just to display in vitrines because they are so impressed with the creativity and beauty that is expressed. They admire it as they do sculpture and paintings."

The bulk of jewelry that exists in the world is European, says Mrs. Halpin. "We do not know how much there was originally because so much has been destroyed -- melted down in various countries by revolutionaries who regarded it as symbols of the oppressors. We can only assume that the jewelry that is available on the market today is a small fraction of what was once made. In America, very little jewelry was made before 1850, and not much was made between 1850 and 1870. After 1870, Americans made jewelry in the English Victorian manner, but the greatest US name that emerged from the period was Louis Comfort Tiffany.

If you would like to begin to collect antique jewelry, where and how do you begin? Here are a few hints from Mrs. Halpin and the other experts mentioned here.

Visit the jewelry collections of great museums. Read books. Do specific research on areas or materials that interest you.

Before you make your first purchase, get all the advice and information you can. Seek out the best authority in the store, or ask for the person who is in charge of an auction collection. Tell them frankly that you are a beginner and that you would appreciate their help. Handle as many pieces as you can so you can study them at close range and come to know their distinctions and differences.

Never buy a piece for investment value alone. Buy a piece because you love it and will enjoy wearing it. Jewelry of quality has never really lost value. Most often it goes on accruing in value. "Even in the most perilous of times," Mrs. Halpin recalls, "good jewelry has always been a sort of portable defense."

Also, buyers beware. While the 19th century was the golden age of jewelry-making, inferior pieces whose intrinsic and investment value would be questionable were produced as well. Beginners should therefore depend on reputable dealers and expert guidance.

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